Flat Out Love
I was at a panel about love on Saturday at the Virginia Festival of the Book and it got me thinking.
While love is most certainly one of my favorite topics, that’s not why I went. Daniel Jones, the editor of the New York Times Modern Love column has a new book out (LOVE ILLUMINATED), and since I’d written a Modern Love essay a few years ago and found Daniel to be delightful and so very helpful to a novice essay writer like me, I wanted to go to the panel and buy his book. It was my small way of saying thanks.
Besides Daniel, two other authors shared the podium: a family lawyer and blogger who’d written a book about what it’s really like to be a divorce lawyer, and a psychologist who is both a grief and a marriage counselor. The latter had written a book about tips on cultivating a happy marriage.
All of them were wonderful and had a lot of poignant things to say.
I learned from Daniel that many of the students who write to him feel lost and lonely in the current “hook-up” culture prevalent on today’s college campuses. There is, after all, a poverty of soul to waking up next to someone you hardly know and getting a “well, I guess I’ll see you around,” after a night of passion instead of a loving smile, a kiss, and an “I’ll see you after class.”
He told stories about modern day struggles to find a lasting relationship: the analysts who make tallies of pros and cons in their love prospects, and the romantics who bathe themselves in that magical potion of common sense and lust as they keep an eye out for “the one.”
The psychologist spoke of the dichotomy between her grief and marriage counseling practices, and how much one informs the other. A full half of her patients are widows and widowers who are utterly heartbroken at their loss and would do anything to have their beloved back. Even if just for a scant minute – to tell them how much they love them.
The other half of her practice is made up of people who have in many cases squandered the most precious relationship in their lives through everything from adultery and abuse to negligence or mere nit-picking. They are now desperate and repentant, and confused and adrift, or hopeful and re-energized. Ready to make it work.
And last, the family lawyer took the podium. Her words were counter-intuitive and romantic – yes, romantic. It was a privilege for her, she told us, to see people at their most raw and be privy in an intimate way to the fallout from their greatest personal failure. She has sat with men as they wept openly because they missed their children so badly. With women who shook with fear at the prospect of having to sell their house.
Yet at the end of the day, she said she still considers herself a love junkie despite the nature of her job. One who posts wedding pictures of former clients and their new families all over her office. Who holds a deep appreciation for her own happy marriage.
With love, the stakes are so huge – especially after love becomes marriage. There is no other relationship, as the psychologist pointed out, that combines all elements of the human experience: ardor, friendship, partnership, sexuality, blood and death.
Could anything possibly be more important?
At the end of the hour, despite so many painful and gushing revelations, all the panelists agreed that love was not like a Disney movie or a romance novel. Not real love, anyway.
But I disagree.
For my part, I’ve sat and listened as a family friend talked about his wife of almost twenty years with a breathlessness that bordered on rapture. “She’s all that matters,” he said. “Her and our kids.” And this was coming from a Marine Corps General who looks like a cross between Ed Harris and Bryan Cranston.
I’ve watched men and women shower their step-children with the same affection and financial resources that they had reserved for their own, and cry as those kids go off to a college they’ve mortgaged their house to pay for.
If that’s not a Disney movie, I don’t know what is.
It’s that very fact that prompted our son – a typical glib, dirty-joke telling, tits-obsessed twelve year-old to say to his buddy – in all seriousness – “Why won’t you tell me who you like? It’s nothing to be ashamed of.” He paused and looked out the window. “Love is beautiful.”
I’m glad his father and I have had something to do with his perception of love and I’m not going to disabuse him of it. Or manage his expectations down as is so popular to do nowadays.
But I also don’t live in la-la land.
There is a tactical side of love that goes hand-in-hand with the rapid heartbeat, the five hour telephone conversation, the damp sheets that gather in your balled-up fist.
It was summed up best to me by a businessman, of all people. Not some poet. I met him on a train a few years ago and he was a funny, glad-hander type. He had some of his employees with him and was trying to keep things light as they traveled back and forth from his offices in Philly, New York and Washington DC.
I sat down with him and his crew on the Philly to DC leg of the trip – they actually made room for me as the train was packed. It was nice of them. I was exhausted and didn’t relish the idea of standing for a few hours – especially as I’d already been camping out for weeks at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where my youngest daughter had been born with every medical problem imaginable.
When the businessman noticed my hospital bracelet, he leaned in to me and asked, “How’s your marriage?”
Very direct. Just like that.
“Great,” I answered. “Otherwise you’d probably have to wrestle the gun out of my mouth.”
He laughed “You’re blessed,” he said.
I knew that.
“You know, my first marriage was a colossal disaster,” he told me. “I mean on a biblical scale.” He went on to tell me about how bitter and angry that marriage had made him. That he’d vowed, as he was going through his horror-show divorce, to never, ever marry again.
“Can you believe it? I met my wife in the middle of all of this,” he said. “It was flat-out love.”
But his soon-to-be ex-wife was suing the hell out of him and their kids were a disaster. He felt both used and used up and was terrified at the prospect of getting it wrong again. Nor could he imagine, for the life of him, how someone could love a man who was going through what he was going through. And worse, who’d brought it upon himself.
“But you know what?” he said. “My wife was always part of the solution and never part of the problem.”
That observation alone could describe every happy partnership I’ve ever known.
“A few years later,” he continued. “We had a sick kid born at the same hospital where your daughter’s being treated. I remember sitting outside on one of the benches and thanking God that this had happened with the woman I’m married to now and not my ex-wife. Otherwise I would’ve ended up on the nightly news.”
He cupped his hand over mine and ran his finger over my hospital bracelet. “It’s the most important decision you’ll ever make – choosing your mate. It can make or break your life.”
And don’t those kinds of stakes deserve the sorts of over-the-top dreamy declarations we find so simple-minded in any self-respecting Once Upon A Time love story?
Please check out LOVE ILLUMINATED by Daniel Jones. It’ll make your day. http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_1_7?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=love%20illuminated%20jones&sprefix=love+il%2Cstripbooks%2C211